Category Archives: auction

Suspended in Time

While you may have missed it, gentle reader, a story has been making the rounds in the international press about an unique Paris apartment that The Courtier suspects may attract general interest. Recently an elderly lady by the name of Mme. de Florian died at the age of 91 in the south of France. She had arrived there in 1940 after fleeing Paris ahead of Hitler’s invasion of France, but remained on in the Riviera even after the war, never returning to the capital. While this is not necessarily an unusual story, for certainly a number of Parisians were traumatized by World War II and permanently abandoned the city, what is remarkable here is the discovery made by those settling her estate.

In addition to the property where she had spent the last 70 years of her life, Mme. de Florian was also the owner of a beautifully furnished flat in the 9th, not far from the Paris Opéra. She had inherited the apartment from her grandmother, a famous actress of the Belle Epoque era. The executors were astounded to discover that when she fled to the south, Mme. de Florian had locked up and left her Parisian residence completely intact, with furniture, paintings, etc., and continued to timely pay the apartment complex maintenance fees on it for the next 70 years until her death. During that time the flat remained completely unused and undisturbed.

One investigator described his initial visit to the apartment as “stumbling into the castle of Sleeping Beauty,” noting that, apart from the piles of dust and peeling wallpaper, the flat was like a time capsule from the year 1900, when it had been decorated to the luxuriously expensive taste of Mme. de Florian’s grandmother, Marthe de Florian. In the luxurious but faded space, agents found piles of books, furniture, porcelain, gowns, jewelry, and even an old Mickey Mouse toy. In fact the centerpiece of the apartment was a portrait of Marthe de Florian by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini, which recently sold for $3 million at auction.

Like many actresses, Marthe de Florian had her admirers. One of her many prominent suitors was the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, although it was her relationship with the very-much married Boldini, documented in love letters discovered in the apartment, which seemed to attract the most interest among bidders at the auction. It also perhaps explains the rather breathless quality of his portrait of her.

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on this remarkable, hitherto unknown painting and the (admittedly sordid) story behind it, The Courtier’s attention – and indeed, salivation – was most drawn to the flat itself. In New York City what are referred to as “Pre-War” apartments are among the most prized pieces of real estate on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One can imagine the price this particular bit of residence would fetch if it was located in New York, let alone in Paris where the cost of even the smallest of pied-a-terre spaces in the center of town is eye-wateringly dear.

And as space goes, this is quite an architectural joy: the flat was never subdivided or modernized. No hideous avocado green tiles or drop acoustic ceiling tiles ruin the interior, nor were the floor parquets pulled up and discarded as being out of fashion by some Neanderthal in the 1970′s. It is not only a Pre-War apartment, it is a Rip van Winkle of an apartment. Who knows what will ultimately become of the space, or indeed who will be next lucky owner, but for now we can all enjoy some of the images of the shadows of another century’s very elegant life, and daydream.

The dining room of the late Mme. de Florian’s flat in Paris

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Filed under architecture, art, art history, auction, France, Paris, property

>Reflecting on the Lehman Brothers Art Auction

>Chances are, unless you work somewhere particularly grand, that most of the art hanging in the hallways of your office is rather uninteresting, at best. There are probably a few blobby things with enigmatic titles like “Object #45 with Suite of Magpies” by an artist you have never heard of, if you work in a firm which sees itself as forward-looking. If your business likes to project a more traditional, solid image, the walls may display things like photo lithograph reproductions of 19th century prints of the city in which your business happens to be located, where the framing is worth far more than the print.

This weekend Sotheby’s New York presented the first installment of the sale of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers’ art collection; subsequent sales will be held at Christie’s in London and Freeman’s in Philadelphia. The big headline coming out of this first auction was that there was not a single bid for a piece by British artist Damien Hirst, a collection of objects which had been expected to be one of the stars of the sale. Reporters seem to be questioning whether this is an indication that Hirst, perhaps the most infamous of the British art world’s enfant terribles in the 1990′s, has had his day. I think it more probable that no one at the sale realized the piece was art, rather than a display of odds and ends from the break room.

This aside, it is worth taking a look at some of the pieces which workers at Lehman Brothers had to endure every day as they made their way through the offices, corridors, and lobbies of the workplace. Here is the Damien Hirst piece, “We’ve Got Style (The Vessel Collection — Blue/Green)”, which failed to sell:

Here we see the (rather predictable) canvas “Untitled #1″, by Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu, which went for $1 million:

The painting “Shakespearean Actress” by John Currin went for about half of its estimated sales price:

And this is “The Long Way Home” by Chinese artist Yiu Le, which went for nearly $1 million, well above its expected price:

While it is difficult to try to come up with what one might consider an armchair psychological profile of a business in looking at just a handful of pieces from its walls, one thing which struck me was how this selection of pieces is rather muted, and lacking in self-confidence. These works could just as easily hang in a nursing home as anywhere else, where their Kaopectate tones would be very much at home – and which makes them rather odd choices for what was once one of the world’s most powerful investment banks. They seem to me, frankly, to be depressing rather than inspirational.

The environment in which one works, or lives, can have a significant impact on one’s psyche. In my office, as those who know me might expect, I display many of the mid-20th century Spanish landscape artists whose work I collect. Some are black-and-white gouache, some are small oils and watercolors, and some are signed lithographs. Truthfully, having a look round as I type this, my space looks something more like the office of an art dealer than an attorney.

Surrounding myself with these images has two important effects. They give me inspiration when I may find myself listless and lagging around 3:45 pm on a Wednesday, and at the same time they seem to put my clients at ease because they are attractive and interesting. I am particularly drawn to images which are realistic but somewhat leaning toward graphic design – Don Draper would probably find my selections something he could appreciate – rather than attempting to achieve either an impressionistic effect or photo-realism. On many occasions I have come into my office and found attorneys from other firms standing about admiring the pieces on the walls.

The first rule of collecting, of course, is that you should collect what you love, but firms such as Lehman’s usually purchase art for one of two reasons. Either the spouse or sibling of one of the partners is an interior designer, or the pieces were looked on as a commodity and believed to be capable of increasing in value over time based on the advice of professional art consultants. The final value of this portion of the sale of Lehman’s collection went just over the high end of the estimates, which perhaps shows that Lehman was a bit better at understanding the art market than the housing market.

However, I suspect that the catalog of this collection will prove interesting to later generations of social scientists, who will try to glean what they can from interpreting the art holdings of Lehman Brothers at the time of the firm’s collapse.

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Filed under art, auction, Christie's, collecting, contemporary art, Sotheby's

>Having A Good Clear-Out

>When this scrivener, dear reader (or perhaps you, yourself), starts searching about the manse for places to store some of the newly washed-in flotsam and jetsam of life, he finds that the items contained within the cupboards and bureaux have seemingly reproduced themselves while he was not looking – and without his entirely understanding why. It seemed only a few months ago that when he switched the closets over from cold to warm weather, that The Courtier managed to pull together two enormous parcels of clothing and other items to be donated to the Georgetown Homeless Ministries Center. Now he finds that doors and drawers are so filled to bursting that he will have to go through the process yet again. While there is always a fleeting sense of accomplishment after doing so, at the same time there is this nagging sense that material possessions have taken too great a hold on both one’s soul and residence.

And then of course, there are the great country houses.

Chatsworth House, the residence of the Dukes of Devonshire since the 16th century (although both the present building and their title is later), is a very great country house indeed. It boasts, inter alia, 126 rooms and a 1,000-acre garden designed by the great English landscape architect Capability Brown in the 18th century. It is filled with important Old Master paintings and decorative arts, and has been the location of many important events in English history. It is also, albeit on a considerably larger scale, similarly packed to the rafters with all sorts of odds and ends which the Ducal family no longer requires.

Naturally His Grace cannot set up a yard sale on the South Lawn to rid himself of such items. Well, of course he could, but this would be something of an awkward undertaking, to say the least. Instead, more than 20,000 items are being put up for auction by Sotheby’s from October 5th-7th; interested bidders can request a catalogue here, or purchase one by attending the preview at Chatsworth House between October 1st-4th. One imagines that the resulting volume will be the size of a city telephone directory, and an interesting reference work in and of itself.

Among the many items to be offered for bid, that reproduced below is particularly striking. William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, served as the British Ambassador to the Russian Imperial Court between 1826-1827, and the sale will include the Regency-style sleigh which the Duke used during his tenure in St. Petersburg. A sale estimate of £2,000-3,000 is certainly reasonable for such a beautiful piece of workmanship, and The Courtier’s more northerly-based readers ought to consider this as a highly useful item for mushing through the snows of Scandinavia, the prairie provinces, etc. And admittedly: who does not want to own a magnificent sleigh, practical or not?

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Filed under antiques, auction, Duke of Devonshire, Regency, Russia, Sotheby's, St. Petersburg

>Stop That Hammer!

>An interesting snag in the art business world is making the rounds in the Spanish press this morning. The Barcelona auction house of Soler i Llach was set to auction off a number of photographs by the legendary French photographer and filmmaker Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), from the collection of a Catalan photography connoisseur. Tomorrow evening they had scheduled a preview for select clients of the upcoming sale, which included photographs by Cartier-Bresson and others, letters to and from Cartier-Bresson, as well as a number of books containing his works.

As a photographer, Cartier-Bresson created a number of iconic images over the course of his long career, including portraits, cityscapes, and fashion photography. Today however, he is primarily honored for his popularizing the idea of snapping candid images of people on the street. His work brought a liveliness and immediacy to the medium and established what we think of today as photojournalism. This precedent is just as powerful today as it was in the last century: one simply could not have a blog like Scott Schuman’s highly influential The Sartorialist for example, without Cartier-Bresson as its forerunner.

Unfortunately for the Catalan auctioneers, questions have arisen regarding the legality of the photographs from the collection put up for sale. Attorneys for the Cartier-Bresson Foundation allege that a number of the photographs, while genuine images and not forgeries themselves, may bear forged Cartier-Bresson signatures or studio stamps. Other photographs are works which they allege are not saleable, as still being the property of the estate of the late photographer himself and never intended for sale, or being the property of print and other media outlets who purchased the rights to the images when they were originally selected for publication, and thereafter retained rights over the images.

Under pressure from the Cartier-Bresson Foundation Soler i Llach have, perhaps wisely, decided to withdraw 60 of the 66 photographs from sale, at least temporarily. The auction house director maintains in press reports as of this writing that this is a freeze, not a full withdrawal, because Soler i Llach’s experts believe that the signatures are genuine. The house is not discounting the possibility of bringing legal action against the Foundation, I would assume for the European version of what in the States we would consider tortious interference with a business transaction.

Anytime one is dealing in the work of artists who are still alive or who have not been dead for very long, this type of thing comes up. Auction houses may act with reasonable due diligence and still find themselves in a terrible position. Dealers in Old Masters on the other hand, know that the descendants of Rembrandt and Tintoretto are not going to be showing up and alleging certain proprietary rights, such as under international intellectual property laws – though fans of old varnished boards have their own problems to deal with, such as provenance, export licenses, and so on. Still, the path to ownership of works created before the advent of modern copyright laws seems less fraught with dangers for both the auction house and the collector. It will be interesting to see how this cross-Pyrenees dispute is finally resolved.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, New York 1935
by Baron George Hoyningen-Huene

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Filed under art, art business, art history, auction, Barcelona, Henri Cartier-Bresson, intellectual property, photography